UK urged to act on China rights abuse

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British businesses need to do more to combat human rights abuses in China, Amnesty International said as it launched its campaign against abuses in China before the Beijing Olympics next year.

UK banks, insurers and other companies are battling to invest or do business in China, the world's fastest-growing major economy, but they can do more to influence the Chinese government on matters like treatment of workers, Amnesty said.

An Amnesty spokeswoman said: "To any business or important investor in China we would always say they have influence and a responsibility to use that influence. Human rights law says businesses are organisms of society that have responsibilities. The economies of China and many other economies need these companies and their influence can be used."

Amnesty says that when China made its bid for the 2008 Olympics, the authorities promised improvements in human rights but that, six years on, serious violations continue across the country.

Amnesty's campaign is focusing on China's heavy use of the death penalty, the need for fair trials and an end to torture, freedom of expression and information, and protection of human rights campaigners.

Banks such as Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Standard Chartered have invested in Chinese lenders to cement their places in the development of China's financial services market, and Barclays said earlier this month that China Development Bank would take a stake in the British bank. Insurers Prudential and Aviva also do business in China.

British investment in China goes far beyond financial services. Retailers including Tesco and B&Q have businesses there, and China produces many clothes, electronic products and other goods produced by UK companies.

Companies too often hide behind the laws of the countries in which they operate but that is not an excuse for inaction on human rights, Amnesty said. The campaign group said businesses in Britain and elsewhere are able to get away with doing little because agreements on the environment and human rights, such as the UN Global Compact, are voluntary. In 2005, Kofi Annan, then the UN secretary general, appointed Professor John Ruggie to monitor international companies' efforts on human rights. Professor Ruggie may come up with strong standards, but how binding they will be will depend on the power of the business lobby in the UN, Amnesty said.

Amnesty is the world's biggest human rights organisation and has campaigned for individual liberties since 1961.